When Wafa Sultan starts talking about Islam, things get nasty. The Syrian-born, Los Angeles–based psychiatrist has made a side career of questioning the Koran and being a militant advocate for free speech and inquiry in her faith.
Sultan’s path toward advocacy began in 1979, when, as a medical student at the University of Aleppo in northern Syria, she watched members of the Muslim brotherhood murder one of her professors while shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” When she moved with her husband and children to the United States in 1989, she began clarifying and refining her views in private writings, ultimately publishing her opinions on a reformist Islamic website titled Annaqed, or “The Critic.” In February of this year, Al Jazeera invited Sultan to participate in a debate, inspired by her writing on Annaqed. In her now-legendary performance, she announced that she didn’t believe in the supernatural. A Muslim cleric on the program promptly denounced her for blasphemy, which is punishable by death in some Muslim countries. Sultan snapped back that her beliefs were none of his business. Then, in a scandalous reference to Muslim veneration of the Black Stone—the rock in Mecca toward which Muslims pray five times each day—Sultan explained to her interlocutor, “Brother, you can believe in stones, as long as you don’t throw them at me…. Let people have their beliefs.”
It’s an unfortunate reality that this view—that atheism is a personal choice that one is entitled to make—is deeply radical in Islam. Inevitably, the death threats have come rolling in. But so has courtship from all sorts of groups nursing unrelated resentment towards the Muslim world, including, perhaps unavoidably, Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, which have been struck giddy by Ms. Sultan’s acid remark on Al Jazeera that “we have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant.”
Right-wing Jewish organizations might love Sultan for her positive feelings towards the Jews, but their ethnic self-congratulation misses the point of her subversive radicalism. What makes Sultan such a bold new voice is her insistence that no tradition or community is beyond criticism, and no belief above challenge.
Next page: Tikkun olam radical Ruth Messinger